Continuing the week’s theme of HDR tips, here’s one that can help out in situations where you find yourself wanting to shoot a bracket for an HDR but you don’t have access to a tripod. I don’t shoot many handheld HDR brackets but sometimes I don’t have a choice – either tripods are banned or I don’t have one with me. In this case, here are a few tips that can allow you to get the shot even without your trusty tripod. For reference, the shot above is a 7 exposure, handheld HDR shot at EPCOT in Walt Disney World.
- If your camera allows you to shoot more than 3 shots in automatic bracketing mode, set it to bracket a couple of shots wider than you normally would. If you would normally set up for a bracket of 3 exposures, for example, set it for 5. You won’t get a chance to tweak exposures after shooting your handheld bracket if it’s not wide enough so this helps minimise the chances of you having to reshoot the whole thing if you don’t get it first time. If your camera only allows 3 shots in the sequence, stick with that.
- Set your camera to high speed continuous shooting mode. The idea here is that you want to hold the shutter down and have the camera rip through the whole bracket as quickly as possible. Even if you can’t shoot at 8fps, 3fps is still better than you are likely to do pressing the button once per shot so go with what you have.
- Set your aperture so that the longest shutter speed in your bracket will still be in the safe handholding zone (1/focal length). If you are taking a 5 shot bracket, your slowest shutter speed will be 4 times the center setting (+2EV). If you are taking a 7 shot bracket, the slowest will be 8 times the center (+3EV). Typically, I will shoot 5 or 7 shot brackets and try to get my initial shutter speed in the 1/750 to 1/1000 range with a standard lens. This ensures that you won’t have problems with camera shake at one end of the bracket.
- Put your feet apart, brace your elbows by your sides and hold the camera firmly against your eye. Frame the shot and then squeeze and hold the shutter trying to move as little as possible in the process. In continuous mode, my Nikon cameras will shoot the entire bracket then pause to allow me to take my finger off the shutter.
Once you’ve done all this and have your handheld bracket back in the computer, probably the most important tip is to forget Photomatix for the first part of the process. If you have Photoshop, it does a far better job of realigning brackets that are not perfectly aligned so use the “Merge to HDR” feature in Photoshop and save the file it generates as a .HDR or .EXR file. Take this file and open it in Photomatix for tonemapping.
If you practice these steps, you can usually get a pretty decent HDR even if you don’t have a good way of stabilising your camera.
This week, HDR aficionados Rick Sammon and Trey Ratcliff are offering a week of HDR tips so I figured what better time to throw out a few tips of my own. I can’t promise to write one each day but I’ll try to get as close to this as possible. Without further ado, here’s tip number 1.
Most of us who do HDR find ourselves in a situation once in a while where we would love to produce an HDR image but only have a single raw image to start with. Common causes for this are that we didn’t bracket when we originally shot the image we want to process now or that we want to take a picture that contains a lot of movement. In these situations, we can, however, still make use of Photomatix to produce an HDR-like image from that single original exposure and the results can often be very appealing. The image above, for example, was generated from a single exposure I shot while on a tripod-less trip back to Scotland a four years ago.
Many people, including several photographer friends whose HDR work I respect enormously, produce HDRs from single raw files using a workflow that goes something like this:
- Create 3 virtual copies of the original image in Lightroom.
- In the develop module, pull the first image exposure up by 2 stops so that it is brighter.
- Again in the develop module, pull the last image’s exposure down by 2 stops so that it is darker.
- Export all 3 images to JPEGs (hence creating the bracketed set you need to create an HDR).
- Open Photomatix and merge the 3 JPEGs together to give an HDR image which you can then tonemap and process as normal.
This sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? To create an HDR, you need a set of brackets and this gives you that set of images so all is well.
What these folks don’t realise, however, is that they are wasting about 20 minutes per picture and likely ending up with an image that is not as good quality as it should be.
Why not try this instead?
- Open Photomatix.
- Choose “File/Open…” and point it at the single RAW file you want to work on.
- Process as if you just merged a bunch of brackets.
“That can’t be right – it’s far too easy!” you are likely shouting by now. The truth of the matter is that this is likely to give you a better result than the long and complex “generate your own fake brackets” approach described above. The original raw file has at least 2 stops and most likely at least 3 stops more information in it than the JPEGs you create in the awkward workflow. The JPEGs you export there throw away all but 8 stops (8 bits) of the data so by using exposure modification to generate your pseudo-bracket,all you are doing is deciding whether you throw the information away from the highlights or shadows in the different JPEGs. You then open these in Photomatix and have it try to reconstruct the very same data that you were so careful to throw away in the export step.
Photomatix is perfectly capable of extracting all the information from your single raw file so why not have it do the work instead of trying to help (but actually making Photomatix’s job more difficult)?
People who have heard me talk about this before may note that I’m breaking one of my golden rules here which is never to have Photomatix process my raw files. HDRSoft themselves admit that Adobe Camera Raw (the raw file processor inside Photoshop and Lightroom) does a far better job of rendering a raw file than their processor so I always use Lightroom to export my brackets to Photomatix. If you want the best possible quality, you can do the same thing here as long as you remember one very important choice. When you export your single image from Lightroom to send to Photomatix (which, incidentally, you can do via the standard Photomatix plug-in by just highlighting a single image rather than a whole bracketed set), make sure you select “TIFF 16-bit” as the output format. A 16 bit TIFF file allows you to save every bit of dynamic range information from your original raw file and pass it over to Photomatix. If you select JPEG at this point, Photomatix will only receive 8 bits of information and can’t, therefore, pull out any extra dynamic range since you’ve already thrown all that data away.
Next time you are tempted to muck with your exposures in Lightroom and create a fake bracket, give this a try and see what you think. I’m confident you will see that in this case the easiest approach can also be the best!
The latest version of HDRSoft’s excellent Photomatix Pro software has just been released. I’ve been using the beta version for a couple of months and strongly encourage you to upgrade. Version 4.0 includes a fabulous new feature to help you remove ghosts from your merged brackets without the need to jump over into Photoshop and mask stuff together.
The upgrade is free for current version 3 license holders. If you are buying the software, you can use coupon code “DaveWilson” when you check out to receive a 15% discount.
The nice folks over at HDRSoft, the makers of my HDR software of choice, Photomatix Pro, have signed me up for their affiliate program. This is a win-win-win arrangement as far as I can see since all parties benefit – you get a discount, HDRSoft get a sale and I get a commission. I’ve seen several others advertising HDRSoft discount codes but didn’t realise before this week that the arrangement involved a seller commission. In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I thought it would be right to mention this.
If you are buying a copy of Photomatix and use the coupon code “DaveWilson” when you are checking out, you will receive a 15% discount on the purchase, and I will thank you very much.
Despite the mutually beneficial arrangement, I should point out that I have been a huge fan of this software for several years now and, as regular readers will know, have pretty much been acting as an HDRSoft salesman for most of this time!
I’ve just discovered that a new Photomatix update is available. Get hold of version 3.1.3 (with tighter Lightroom integration and the ability to automatically reimport processed images into the Lightroom catalog- yay!) here.